Lately I’ve been reading St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. A striking feature of Chrysostom’s writings (Chrysostom means “golden mouth” in the Greek for etymologists out there!) is how evangelical they sound! Yes, I mean evangelical as in the kind of church many of us Americans attended today.
The way in which I find him to be particulary evangelical is his historical approach to Scripture. He is very concerned with the audience St. Paul is writing to and what the date of the composition of the epistle is. In fact, he exclaims that such information is essential to a proper understanding of the text. The meaning of the epistles, as all the books of the Bible to one degree or another, rely upon the historical situation of text. For instance, we can’t really know what the purpose of Romans is without some idea of what was going on in the Roman church and in the ministry of Paul at the time of the writing, because of the assumptions Paul makes that inhere to letter writing.
Because Chrysostom believes that Scripture is inerrant, as all true evangelicals and all other forms of orthodox Christianity throughout church history believe, to get at the meaning of the Word of God, we must know small historical details such as the demographics of the Roman church in the 1st century. God cares about minutia such as this, which is a breathtaking statement about His attention to His church. That the God of the universe used the lives of a bunch of believing Jews and Gentiles who lived in Rome and became Christians to impact believers for two millenia is a staggering statement.
This is an anachronistic comparison – isn’t it evangelicals that sound like Chrysostom? – but the reason I make it is to highlight that the evangelical church isn’t some wild branch far from the trunk of the historical church. Rather, it is firmly rooted in the true gospel and is in spirit, if not in practice (i.e. liturgically) the closest thing we have to the first generation of the Christian church.